I was a bench warmer.
For a long time.
I know all about sitting the bench, riding the pine, being a scrub, third stringer, token player and last one picked for teams.
I know the feeling of going to the huddle after warming up for a game, surveying the lineup and looking for my number in one of the starting six spots.
I know the feeling of not seeing my number on that paper for, like, the whole season.
I know what it feels like to see #3 and get excited, but then realizing it’s really a #8 and you’re not going in after all.
I know what it feels like for my stomach to sink, my shoulders to slump and tears well up in my eyes as I walk down to the end of the bench to take a seat on the fold-up chair three in from the back. The last chair has the water cooler and then the one next to that has the medical kit or a stack of towels.
I know what it’s like to not be the first one to get subbed in, not the second one, not even the third one to go in.
I know what it’s like to sit game after game after game and still not go in.
I know that feeling of hope when the coach looks down the bench at his available players and I know what it feels like not to make eye contact so you don’t embarrass yourself when you don’t get picked.
I know what it’s like to make eye contact and then feel embarrassed because you didn’t get picked.
I know what it’s like to be subbed in, serve one and then shake hands and go home.
I know what it feels like to know that was my playing time for the next several weeks.
I know what it’s like to feel angry, sad, disappointed and confused all at once.
Nobody wants to be on the big bad bench, but here is what I don’t know:
I don’t know what it’s like to feel sorry for myself.
I don’t know what it’s like to think that being on the bench was the end for me.
I don’t know if I would have ever been good if it weren’t for my time on the bench.
See, being on the bench was the best thing for me. It forced me to do other things with my time (Oh, I goofed off plenty, I was a kid, remember?).
But, I’m an observer, so in any given situation I’m not just seeing things, I’m learning things. It may take a little time, but I’m always observing and learning and taking in information, thinking up a strategy, figuring out a contingency plan or working some kind of formula in my head.
For example, I watched and watched and watched Eric Sato jump serve at the ’88 Olympics. I studied the mechanics, watched his toss, examined his feet in relationship to the service line, looked at his arm swing and then put together a formula to try it myself.
I was still a bench warmer when I taught myself how to do this.
I knew a starting position wasn’t going to be handed to me and if I was going to play I would need to differentiate myself from other players who were bigger and stronger than I was. Nobody else was working on that skill that summer. See? Strategy, contingency plan and execution.
I was still on the bench, which meant that I was STILL ON THE TEAM and if I was on the team then I’d still have a chance to:
Just because I was on the bench didn’t mean my brain was turned off.
I was still on the team, which meant I still had a chance.
So, to my fellow bench warmers, I say this: the character you build when your immediate dreams and goals are deferred is not anything you can train for.
And, that jump serve?
Earned our team three straight points (with me coming off the bench just to serve) in a victory against our biggest high school rival.
That’s what sports are made of.